Beef may often be “what’s for dinner” throughout many parts of the world, but there’s no doubt the habit comes at a heavy price.
In addition to taking the lives of 16 billion or so animals each year in the United States alone — yes, that’s billion — meat takes a significant toll on the environment.
Roughly 16 pounds of grain and 2,400 gallons of water are required to produce just a single pound of meat, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). That pound might also account for the clearing of some 55 square feet of rainforest for grazing cattle.
All in all, it’s a wildly inefficient system for a planet that’s already groaning under the weight of more than 6 billion hungry human mouths.
Today, however, there’s an alternative in the works that isn’t just a matter of giving up the meat habit altogether, which is what vegetarians and vegans typically espouse. Rather, scientists are working on ways to create meat in the lab — meat that won’t involve any suffering, killing or environmental destruction, but will satisfy even the most die-hard human taste buds.
Sound too good to be true? It’s not. “In vitro meat,” as it’s called — or “test-tube meat,” in layman’s terms — is real, and it could be coming to your own kitchen sooner than you think.
‘Not Acceptable for Human Society’
“Humans are constantly evolving through the development of new technology,” Vladimir Mironov, one of the country’s leading in vitro meat researchers, told TechNewsWorld. “This is our competitive advantage.”
At the same time, “historic trends clearly indicate that the killing of animals is becoming not very acceptable for human society,” added Mironov, who is currently a research associate professor and director of the Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Center at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology.
Killing animals for food, in fact, “is increasingly considered barbaric,” he said.
That’s where Mironov’s research comes in.
‘Functional, Authentic Muscle Fibers’
By culturing muscle stem cells in the lab using a special, animal-free nutrient medium to promote growth, scientists have been able to force those cells to differentiate into “functional, authentic skeletal muscle fibers,” Mironov explained.
There are no blood vessels, nerves or connective tissues in the resulting product — only skeletal muscle fibers. That’s the biggest way in which it’s different from real, animal-derived meat.
Otherwise, it’s essentially meat as we know it, and it’s extremely promising as a dietary alternative.
No More Food-Borne Illness
“In vitro meat has the potential to become the new paragon for food nutrition and safety,” Nicholas Genovese, a PETA-sponsored biological engineer who has been working with Mironov, told TechNewsWorld.
PETA, in fact, is so excited about in vitro meat that back in 2008 it offered a US$1 million prize to the first company that could bring lab-grown meat to consumers by 2012; sponsoring Genovese was part of accelerating that process.
In vitro meat’s fat-to-protein ratio, for example, “can be engineered,” Genovese pointed out. Such meats can even “be engineered to synthesize ‘healthy fats’ such as omega-3 fatty acids,” he said.
Then there’s the food-borne illness issue, which essentially disappears when meat is made synthetically.
“During the animal slaughter and butchering process of conventional meat production operations, meats are at risk for cross-contamination by pathogens causal to food-borne illnesses,” Genovese explained. Staphylococcus, Listeria, Campylobacter, Salmonella and Escherichia, for example, are just a few of the pathogens that tend to crop up.
By virtue of the fact that it’s grown in a germ-free and regulated environment, on the other hand, “cultured meat would not have the opportunity” to encounter such pathogens, Genovese said.
No Antibiotics Necessary
So, whereas antibiotics are often used to combat such problems and to promote livestock growth in commercial agricultural facilities, in vitro meat would eliminate the need for such steps altogether.
That, in turn, has two big benefits for humans.
First, “antibiotics cannot be transferred to the consumer during digestion and cannot contribute to the selection of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” Genovese pointed out. Such increasing resistance, indeed, is the focus of a great deal of concern in the medical community.
In vitro meat production also generates no manure, “and thus does not put the vegetable food supply at risk from animal fecal contamination,” which is often the culprit behind outbreaks of vegetable-associated food-borne illnesses, Genovese said.
In vitro meat has not yet been developed commercially, so it’s hard to say this early in the game how its taste and texture will compare with the real thing.
“How in vitro meat differs from meat taken from an animal all depends on the engineering sophistication prior to becoming commercially available,” Genovese noted. “Cultured meat can be engineered to the taste, nutrition and flavor specifications desired by the consumer.”
The most common cuts of meat are “primarily composed of skeletal muscle tissue; other tissues including adipose (fat), cartilage, vascular and connective tissue contribute to the taste and texture of meat,” he pointed out. “The extent to which the product is engineered to recapitulate the complexity of native cuts of meat will depend on the level of investment and time.”
‘I Expect It Will Take 10 Years’
Those same two factors will dictate how soon the necessary bioreactors and other key components are built to enable the commercial-scale production needed to bring in vitro meat to market. Such meat-producing factories could be called “carneries,” Mironov and Genovese have suggested, after .
“I’ve found this fascinating for nigh on 15 years,” Ingrid Newkirk, president and cofounder of PETA, told TechNewsWorld. “We’re very excited about it.”
The group’s million-dollar challenge in 2008 was designed to help bring the concept into the mainstream, Newkirk explained, and “to get people talking.”
PETA focused its initial challenge on creating a viable synthetic chicken meat, primarily because “Americans now eat one million chickens per hour, and each one of those is a terrified individual,” she pointed out.
The group will be happy with whatever form the first products take, however — whether they arrive by the contest’s 2012 deadline or not.
‘It’s Going to Happen’
“In the end, it doesn’t matter,” Newkirk explained. “The concept is off and running in many places; there are the first rumblings of corporate interest, and it has the attention of government. It’s now going to happen.”
Indeed, at least one meat company has already expressed interest, Newkirk added.
The concept has also spurred the creation of an industry consortium, and researchers in Holland are actively pursuing it as well.
“Every day I have the disgusting task of looking at video tapes of animals being slaughtered, dehorned, castrated and debeaked without so much as an aspirin,” Newkirk concluded. “This takes all that away.”
‘An Inescapable Future’
Of course, how consumers will react to lab-created meat remains to be seen, but there’s clearly a potential for some resistance.
Mironov, however, agrees that the road to in vitro meat is an inevitable one.
“In vitro cultured meat is as natural as yogurt, wine, bread, beer and cheese,” Mironov told TechNewsWorld. “In vitro meat is an inescapable future for humanity.”
Twenty-first-century meat “must be an animal-free, land-free, pathogen-free designed nutraceutical or natural-like biomimitic high-tech product with FDA-guaranteed safety, scientifically proven health and nutritional benefits, and custom-designed taste, texture and attractive appearance,” he explained.
Mironov and Genovese are both in the midst of a transition to different academic institutions, but their work promises to continue along similar paths.
Accordingly, it may not be all that long before “mini-bioreactors producing in vitro meat will be as common in 21st century kitchens as coffee or bread machines,” Mironov predicted. “The future belongs to in vitro meat.”